TrekMovie, in its desire to provide a broad response to the release of the latest Star Trek film, reached out to Free Enterprise writer/producer and founding publisher of Geek Magazine, Mark A. Altman, for his thoughts on the latest film. After much cajoling, a reluctant Altman, who the Los Angeles Times once called, “the world’s foremost Trekspert” agreed to share his thoughts with us (with no major spoilers).
REVIEW: REBEL WITH A CAUSE
by Mark Altman
NOTE: Review contains some spoilers – but nothing not seen in any trailer, clip or TV spot.
I have a secret to share with you if you promise not to tell anyone. The original Star Trek movies are just not very good. There, I said it – so let’s just keep it between us. There are many reasons why this is the case, starting with the fact that one of the few of the film series to actually get a motion picture worthy budget was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film which was brutally lambasted for aping the plot of earlier, better episodes and primarily consisted of the principal cast, mouths agape, marveling at the bridge viewscreen. Which isn’t to say I don’t love Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I do. But, of course, that doesn’t make it a great movie – or even a good one, but it is Star Trek and it is a movie, one of the few that has remarkable scope and captures a true sense of the mystery of the cosmos. It also has an overture and five minutes of Kirk ogling the Enterprise that is one of the most majestic and beautiful scenes in the history of the franchise and fills me with pure joy every time I watch it. Likewise, Star Trek II, widely praised as the best of the Star Trek movies, is wildly entertaining, despite its diminished budget, anchored by a literate script from the erudite Nicholas Meyer and a powerful performance from Ricardo Montalban, desperate to shed his Mr. Rourke trappings, back in 1982. Still, Khan is not nearly as great as some of the best episodes of the series. And Star Trek III, the less said, the better. I’ve had enough of you. IV is what it is, enjoyable fluff with a prescient eco-message and some insufferable slapstick and V is a victim of its own inadequate budget. Star Trek VI is a movie which also suffered as a result of budget, recycling sets – and ideas – from other better Trek’s, but still has some nifty setpieces (including the zero-g assassination sequence) and a humdinger of an ending even if its murder mystery isn’t very mysterious and plays like a warmed over version of Seven Days In May.
The interesting thing about the Star Trek movies is they were always reverse engineered with the studio knowing about how much they would/could make and backing into a budget as a result. Trek performed like clockwork, but was never the huge moneymaker of the bigger, more respectable franchises and it was also treated that way. While Star Wars got all the love, Star Trek was the old reliable chestnut that would come out every three years and fill the company coffers but never get taken seriously by the either the studio or the critical establishment.
And then in 2009, J.J. Abrams comes along and is the first director since the great Robert Wise to be handed a sizable wad of cash to go and make a Star Trek film. His prime directive: go big or go home. And whether you love or hate that film, there’s no denying it was a huge box-office success and successfully resurrected the hibernating katra of the franchise that was in a state of permanent hibernation (sorry for mixing my metaphors there, but you get the point). Some fans couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the heresy of recasting our beloved Kirk and Spock and reconceiving Trek for the next generation (and China, Russia and Latin America, all part of the new world order in international box-office receipts). Ironically, the whole argument had echoes of the petulant late 80s tirade by fans against Harve Bennett’s Starfleet Academy which would have recast younger actors in the iconic roles. What was Abrams supposed to do? Make a film with Shatner, Nimoy and the rest of the living cast which is exactly what I would have done – and about a hundred of my closest friends…and maybe you would’ve seen. That’s not a film that’s going to reboot the franchise, honor its origins and take Star Trek where its boldly never gone before.
There’s plenty about the 2009 reboot that I didn’t love; the slapstick Willy Wonka antics with Scotty as Violet Beauregarde, the more taste/less filling engine room, an anemic villain with a revenge plot straight out of a 1966 episode of Batman (“I’ll stand you on a planet and watch you watch your planet blow up, heh, heh”) and the fact that the bully who beats up Kirk in the bar wasn’t named Finnegan, but what it did have in spades and trumped all that was heart and plenty of it as well as the bromance-in the-making of Kirk and Spock. It also had a few delightful new tricks up its sleeves like the Spock/Uhura romance and it even had the audacity to blow up Vulcan – and not put the pieces back together again in some kind of temporal Humpty Dumpty time loop. And, of course, it also had the great Leonard Nimoy at his most rabbinical.
So four years later, its time for an encore. J.J., Bryan Burk and his team of ace filmmakers including screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof have managed to trump their previous exercise in shaking the cobwebs off the franchise and escape the trap of having our ensemble stare out into space from the bridge with a film that not only honors canon and occasionally toys with the hopes, dreams and fears of the nostalgic like me, but moves at a breakneck pace while telling a story that feels very contemporary and, at the same time, very Trekkian. Much like Skyfall did last year with James Bond, Into Darkness pays homage to the Trek canon and sets the table for the next film to be its own singular entity having solidified the bona fides of the new Trek universe and characters in a thoroughly captivating fashion. Into Darkness makes some ballsy choices, a few of which are likely to upset some die-hard fans. But the fact is, as the condescending Trek tagline in 2009 proclaimed, this isn’t your father’s Star Trek. You’re damn right it’s not, but who the hell’s going sit for two hours to watch the big screen version of “The Empath.” But here’s the rub: whatever happens in this universe in no way compromises or diminishes what has come before and can exist side-by-side with the original adventures of Shatner & Company. I mean, let’s face it, Shatner is the Sean Connery of Star Trek, as the tagline for Star Trek: The Motion Picture exclaimed, there is no comparison. So it’s hard to measure up, but damned if Chris Pine doesn’t come close. He manages to make this incarnation of Kirk his own: part James Dean and part Han Solo and yes, even part, Bill Shatner. And the new movie gives Pine’s Kirk a great arc as he is forced to confront his own version of the no-win scenario. The Kirk/Spock dynamic here is one of the most satisfying aspects of the new film and also the most faithful to the spirit of Classic Trek. If I have any quibbles, it’s that the great Karl Urban is slightly underserved as McCoy despite remaining an essential part of the Trek troika of id, ego and superego.
One of the things that really resonated for me about Into Darkness was the fact that, like the best Star Trek stories, the film has an important, and very relevant message at its heart, about not throwing away our ideals when confronted with dangerous threats to our civilization and a strong indictment of Cheney-esque and Rumsfeldian politics. In a free society, our democracy cannot just be words on a piece of paper, but have real meaning that we live by … even when inconvenient. Just ask the Komm’s and the Yang’s. And I think Kirk’s turnabout on the intruders in the first act is a powerful character moment, which while echoing Star Trek VI, is handled far more adeptly. Star Trek has always inherently been a television series and the challenge of any movie is opening the format up enough to accommodate an epic scope and theatrical setpieces without sacrificing the character moments that are at the very heart of the franchise. Into Darkness juggles that extremely well and the Kirk/Spock relationship remains a dynamic that gives the film a lot of its juice. Like most of the Trek films that preceded it, the challenge of servicing the entire ensemble often results in some superfluous scenes for the supporting characters (Chekov, most of all) and the production design remains mildly problematic to me (Bud Lite, anyone), but overall this is a immensely entertaining, humorous and, at times, touching film that delivers on all the expectations one might have for Star Trek. There are also some welcome supporting turns from the stunning, but credible Alice Eve as Carol Marcus and Peter Weller, giving his best performance in years. And Benedict Cumberbatch, brilliant in Sherlock, does not disappoint as the enigmatic John Harrison.
Obviously, the biggest challenge for the filmmakers of any big-budget action franchise are to deliver viscerally engaging and original action sequences which Star Trek has never done particularly well. Yes, Star Trek II has the suspenseful battle in the Mutara Nebula, Trek VI has the aforementioned zero-g assassination sequence and First Contact has the deflector dish combat with the Borg. Into Darkness has a number of action scenes, writ large, most of which work far better in 3-D than 2-D. And in the interest of full disclosure let me say, I hate 3-D. I hate it. As someone who remembers all too well the great 3-D renaissance, and I use the term loosely, of 1983 with Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Parasite and Jaws 3-D, I have no affinity for 3-D whatsoever. And yet I feel this film works far better in 3-D, particularly the action sequences whose impact is clearly designed to be maximized in the format which gets a great stenographic transfer. I love the cold teaser on an alien planet, where in true “Paradise Syndrome” fashion Kirk’s trying to stop the annihilation of a primitive alien world which culminates in one of my favorite match dissolves ever in a movie. There’s also a kinetic pursuit when Kirk and Spock evade the Klingons and make the Kessell Run in less than 12 parsecs and some later action setpieces that are equally inventive.
If I have any quibble with Into Darkness, it’s the ship-to-ship space combat falls victim to the same problems most recent sci-fi movies have. While the space fantasies I grew up were all influenced by submarine movies like The Enemy Below and Run Silent, Run Deep those filmmakers grew up on and the combat was slow and methodical, today’s space battles all seemed patterned on video games and happen too fast without any sense of geography or consequence. I’ll never forget watching the lumbering Reliant attacking the Enterprise on “Siskel & Ebert” for the first time and being awestruck by the Enterprise being carved to ribbons by a phaser beam. The culminating space battle in the Mutara Nebula is a textbook example of how to do a cat and mouse space battle. In Into Darkness everything unfolds so quickly that’s its tough to build to a crescendo when everything takes place at such a heightened pitch. And its equally difficult to create the emotional resonance of the Enterprise flaming out in the sky above the Genesis Planet when you haven’t established Kirk’s love and obsession with his one true love, his ship. Right now, it’s like a Timex watch, it takes a licking, but keeps on ticking. But that’s what makes the Star Trek universe such a wonderful sandbox and helps keep me excited about the future which is why these are all minor quibbles with a film that is successful in so many ways. There’s a light touch to the movie, which never diminishes its gravitas and a respect for the source material, that’s so essential. And this film also marks J.J.’s emergence as a mature filmmaker with a sure-handed mastery of both smaller, more intimate character moments as well as the larger action setpieces. As much as I love Mission: Impossible 3 and the first half of Super 8, it’s hard to argue that this is his best directed film.
As Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score culminates with a reprise of the classic Trek theme and the Enterprise prepares to head out on its five year mission, I couldn’t help but be excited about the prospects for the future; not just for this crew but future television series, webisodes and who knows what else. As Carol Marcus eyes Kirk on the bridge, I couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to see Kirk get things right this time and not be an absentee father to David, watch as the five year mission unfolds and maybe even see a new television series with the rebooted Next Generation cast or maybe even Kirk and Carol Marcus’ son in command. Whether we’ll see any of that, who knows. But what I do know, is a phrase that I’ve heard many times before and am likely to hear many more times in the future: Star Trek Lives!
MARK A. ALTMAN is the writer/producer of the award winning, cult classic Free Enterprise starring William Shatner and Eric McCormack. He has been a writer/producer on such hit television series as Castle, Necessary Roughness and Femme Fatales and is the founding publisher of the bestselling magazine, Geek Magazine, available at newsstands everywhere. Altman has also produced numerous feature films including James Gunn’s The Specials and DOA: Dead or Alive, based on the hit video game series. You can follow him on Twitter at @markaaltman.